London—(Update with link to an alarmed Cuba) Venezuela is holding legislative elections and the question is: will voters in the oil-rich basket case follow Argentina’s lead and turn to the right?
Surveys say yes, and indicators of economic and social distress suggest change is due: super high inflation, massive crime, shortages of all kinds of consumer good, rampant corruption and an increase in poverty after several years of declining numbers. The combined disasters seem to spell the end of 16 years of dominance by the political party and movement founded by the late Hugo Chavez, and which is now guided by his successor President Nicolas Maduro
The steep worldwide decline in oil prices is a key reason. Chavez’ redistribution of oil income to the poor fueled his self-styled Bolivarian Revolution; there’s not enough petroleum money to go around. Like many countries rich in natural resources, Venezuela failed to develop other foundations for sustained economic balance.
What has given the Venezuelan opposition particular hope is the turnaround in Argentina, where conservative businessman Mauricio Macri defeated the candidate of the leftist Peronist party that ruled for 12 years.
Conservative commentators are heralding a rollback of the “pink wave” of leftist government elected in South American since Hugo Chavez’ rise to power. Even Cuba, under aging Communist leader Raul Castro is looking for mildly capitalist remedies to end Cuba’s stagnation. Certainly, a rightist victory in Venezuela Sunday would bolster the argument that a conservative tide is rolling in.
The result in Argentina reflects a democratic maturity 33 years after the downfall of the country’s last dictatorship. Will the same hold true in Venezuela, a country with an even longer– 57 year old– democratic tradition?
The Chavista movement has yet to face defeat and represents a formidable obstacle. Its tools are many and some are sordid: populist appeal, harassment of the press, judicial intimidation of opponents and its use of mob violence to terrorize rivals. In particular, the thuggish paramilitary units known as colectivos may not take losing as easily as did the Argentine left.
Some signs are already ominous. A government prosecutor fled into exile, claiming that Maduro pressured him to invent fake evidence against an opposition leader. A top official of the opposition Democratic Action Party was shot dead at an electoral rally. Threats to government employees (to vote Chavista) and rumors of pre-tampered voting machines have raised the electoral temperature.
It would be shameful for a tainted election to reverse the democratic revival in Latin America that brought the left to power and sustained it over the past decades. But Chavistas believe that the revolution is eternal—hasta la victoria siempre, as they say. Swallowing defeat will not be easy.
International Crisis Group primer.
Wall Street Journal celebrates ebb of pink tide.
A view that there’s trouble head.
Granma, Cuba’s Communist party mouthpiece, freaks out.